Over at the TPM Cafe, there's an interesting discussion of Tom Frank's book, What's the Matter With Kansas. To my mind, Todd Gitlin levels a devastating critique, pointing out its vulgar Marxist assumptions--that Kansans, like all normal people, should be voting their "fundamental" interests, namely economics. As Gitlin points out, by what logic or evidence should we suppose that religious or moral or any other set of beliefs is less fundamental than economic interest? He writes:
The big trouble is with your deep premise, which first shows up on the way from page 1 to page 2: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.” The point crops up a few hundred more times in your pages.
The problem lies in those glimmering words, “fundamental,” “interest,” and “wrong.” What’s a fundamental interest anyway? You appear to be a pure utilitarian. People ought to be rational calculators, dammit. They may not live by bread alone but when they get stampeded into church by bakery tycoons they should realize they’re being taken for a ride—nothing more. But Marx thought more of religion than that. Religion for him was, after all, “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people." That’s potent stuff. An opiate of the people gets you high. People get excited about it. They care about it. They will die for it.
In fact, Americans have been excited during much of our national history (and even before there was anything like an American nation) by an actually- or quasi-religious passion—to know Jesus, to build a city on the hill, or, in Tom Paine’s best Deist rendition, to start the world over again—if, that is, we are the people of Great Awakenings, one after another (with intervals), so that over and over Americans are consumed by a rapture of conviction that we are God’s special children, or the masters of the universe. Then why is the belief that we deserve to be so, or that we are already so, and that even the meanest of us burns and deserves to kick the asses of pointy-headed bureaucrats and nattering nabobs of negativism, not “fundamental”?
If millions of people are galvanized into politics by a quivering passion to save “the babies,” that is, fetuses, why is their passion not fundamental?
When millions of all colors marched for civil rights, were their passions not “fundamental”? Did they have no “interest” in racial equality?
You and I share a passion for social equality. If we had our druthers, our taxes would surely go up in the interest of that equality. Not as much as a CEO’s, I daresay, but some. I would still insist that our politics are fundamental to our beings—more fundamental, in fact, than our bank balances—and I doubt this is because you and I are victims of a species of false consciousness promoted by diabolical new-class levelers. Are our interests in equality not “fundamental” or “interests”?
In response to this, Frank has, well, nothing. Instead of taking on the substance of Gitlin's argument, Frank nitpicks by claiming that he can't be a vulgar Marxist because he hasn't read much Marx!